June 9, 2021

The LSD No-Hitter

by Not Past It

Background show artwork for Not Past It

Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis, played the best game of his career while tripping on acid. On June 12, 1970:Ellis pitched a no-hitter. Simone tells the story of his trip and what it can teach us about psychedelic drugs and performance anxiety.

Where to Listen


[ARCHIVAL, announcer: Looking out on the scoreboard, you can see zero zero zero, where it says San Diego. Now Dock Ellis comes down he’s hiding inside ball one, just off the bill of the cap…. ]

SIMONE: The year is 1970.  Dock Ellis is on the mound pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He’s got his cap on, his curls peeking out the side. And he’s chewing a piece of bubble gum to a pulp. He’s faced down batter after batter of the opposing San Diego Padres and… they haven’t gotten a hit. 

[ARCHIVAL, announcer: Well, here we are in the seventh inning, Dock Ellis working on a no-hitter.]

SIMONE: But Dock, he isn’t exactly in his right mind… 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock Ellis: There were times when the ball was hit back at me, it looked big as a balloon. And then sometimes it looked small.]

SIMONE: On June 12, 1970, 51 years ago this week, Dock Ellis was written into sports history as the pitcher who threw a no-hitter... while tripping on LSD. 

[Archival, Dock Ellis: She said, what's wrong with you? I said, I'm high as a Georgia pine.]

Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. I’m Simone Polanen. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history -- and tell you the story of how it shaped our world.

Simone: Today, we’re revisiting this trippy day in baseball history to tell you about sports and drugs and the lengths we’re willing to go to... to avoid failure. That’s coming up.

[ARCHIVAL, Donnell Alexander: Um, I need you to say your name. “Say my name is.”]

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: My name is Dock Phillip Ellis Jr. better known as the first militant of professional baseball.]

SIMONE: I love the way Dock introduces himself — I feel like I know all I need to know about who he is and how he carries himself in the world. But this is not my interview with Dock, it was broadcast on Weekend America in 2008. Dock was in his 60s, he passed away almost 9 months later. And even in his older age, Dock comes off as a badass. Supposedly, when he gave this interview, he answered the door in a bathrobe… Who does that? There’s no other way to put it… Dock was fucking cool. 

SIMONE: But even before that famous LSD no-no, as Dock’s no-hitter would come to be called… for him the relationship between sports and drugs was intertwined. Even in the beginning.  

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: Growing up in Los Angeles, California, I knew about drugs. I had seen drugs and played around with them and I knew what they, what they were.]

SIMONE: This was back in the early 60s -- the Mad Men era, you know, back when they called weed dope and Bonanza was dominating Sunday night TV. Young Dock was growing up in LA and he remembers taking a handful of pills… while playing basketball.

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: I had dropped three or four red devils and drank half a bottle of Thunderbird wine and I laid the ball up and there was the basket right in my face. I said, Oh man, I'm way up here. And everybody hollered, “Dunk it, Dock, dunk it!”]

SIMONE: No matter what was in his system, it was clear -- Dock was a natural athlete. And people began to take notice. Especially when he was playing baseball. 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: I'm 15, 16 years old, playing with men and throwing the ball through the cement wall. They say, look at that youngster throw that ball, let him keep on throwing it.]

SIMONE: And then, at 18, in 1964, Dock signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and started playing with one of their minor league teams. But Dock didn’t stop using drugs while playing professional baseball -- he says smoking marijuana helped his game.  

[Archival, Dock: Oh, Oh, Ohhhhh, I can smoke dope and run all day long. They want me to run -- hell, I’ll run all day. Give me a joint. Let me smoke a joint. And they used to have to say, go get Dock and tell him to stop running because I'd be high, I’d be tripping on running.]

SIMONE: Dock played in the minor leagues for five years, until the spring of 1968, when he was called up to pitch for the Pirates… in the majors. And he just … played fine. Nothing that exciting… until June of 1970. Until that miraculous, drug-induced game that would change his entire legacy. 

SIMONE: The LSD no-no game. 

SIMONE: But the story of that game actually starts a couple of days earlier. When Dock realizes that he’ll be pitching in San Diego… and he’ll be close to his hometown of LA.

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: I asked the manager, could I go home? Cause we had an off day and they normally let you go home if you're in the area. So he said yeah.]

SIMONE: And Dock, he took this opportunity... to let loose.

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: So I took some LSD at the airport when I took off with the car, cause I knew where it would hit me. I'd be in my own, my little area that I know where to go.]

SIMONE: Dock taking acid… it wasn’t that out of the blue for him, or in general. Around that time, in the late 60’s and early 70s, LSD had entered the mainstream... with things like The Beatles’ song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the movie Easy Rider and the book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

SIMONE: So. Dock took a hit when he landed in San Diego. Then, he rented a car and drove to LA. 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: So that's how I got to my friend's girlfriend's house. And she said, what's wrong with you? I said, I'm high as a Georgia pine.]

SIMONE: At some point during Dock’s acid trip, he falls asleep for a nap. When he wakes up, he takes even more acid. But.... that nap was quite a bit longer than he thought. And his friend’s girlfriend let him know.

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: She told me you better get up. You got to go pitch. I said, “Pitch? I pitch tomorrow, hell. What are you talking about?” Because I had got up in the middle of the morning and had taken some more acid. And she, she grabbed the paper, brought me the sports page and showed me, boom. I said, “Oh, wow, what happened to yesterday?”]

SIMONE: Can you imagine? Waking up on a day that you think is your day off only to find out, that you need to be at work in a matter of hours… AND work is in another city. In front of a crowd of thousands. 

SIMONE: So, Dock says he races to the airport and flies from LA back to San Diego. He gets to the stadium, heads to the locker room. 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: I was just trying to get to the ballpark, you know, and get dressed, hurry up and get dressed, and get out of people's way cause I’m high as a kite.]

SIMONE: But before the game starts, Dock decides he needs a little pick me up.

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: There was a lady down there in San Diego used to always have the Bennie's for me, which is another a stimulant.]

SIMONE: Bennie’s is slang for Benzedrine. It’s an amphetamine, you know, speed. 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: So, I went out to the dugout and reached up cause she was standing over the rail. She always stood over the rail and had a pretty little gold pouch. So I got the bennies, took them, my eyes were popped out of my head, and chewing that bubble gum like it would turn to powder.]

SIMONE: Dock is now amped up and heads straight for the pitching mound.

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: And they say, “Well, you better go down there and warm up.” So I said, “Yeah that’s right!” I had forgot you had to warm up.]

SIMONE: The game begins. In the bottom of the first inning, Dock faces the Padres lead off batter. It’s raining. A light misty rain. And the LSD, is doing some weird things to his vision… 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: When I was pitching, I didn't see the hitters. All I could tell was if they was on the right side or the left side, as far as seeing the target, the catcher put tape on his fingers. So I could see the signals.]

SIMONE: When you take LSD, the normal rhythms of your brain get out of sync. It varies for every person, but it can sometimes lead to weird misperceptions and out-of-this world hallucinations. And Dock seems to be getting a good dose of both. 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: There were times when the ball was hit back at me, I jumped because I thought it was coming fast, but the ball was coming slow.]

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: And sometimes when it came back to me, it looked big as a balloon. And then sometimes it looks small.]

SIMONE: Dock is completely off in another world. At certain points, he thinks he’s playing a different sport altogether. 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: One time I covered first base and I caught the ball and I tagged the base all in one motion. I said, Oh, I just made a touchdown. [laughs] But actually I, you know, put a guy out at first base.]

SIMONE: Despite all of this, Dock is performing… really well. And a couple of innings into the game, some of his teammates start to notice that the San Diego Padres have yet to get a hit. 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: We had a rookie on the team at that particular time and he sat next to me and he kept saying, he said, you gotta no-no, going. I said, yeah. Right. But I could also feel the pressure from other players wanting to tell him to shut up because that’s a superstition thing where you're not supposed to say nothing if somebody is throwing a no-hitter, cause it is bad luck.]

SIMONE: So, some of you may know this but I had to look up what exactly a no-hitter is… in baseball a “hit” is a technical term. It basically means that a batter hits the ball… no one catches it before it bounces and they make it safely to base. So a no-hitter is when a pitcher pitches a complete game. All 9 innings. Without giving up a “hit.” 

[ARCHIVAL, announcer: There has never been a no-hitter tossed in this ballpark… but I’ll tell you one thing Dock knows he’s got one. You got to have a head of concrete, if you didn’t know it. C’mon Dock, get it. Two nothing Pittsburgh…]

SIMONE: You can pitch a no-hitter and have runners on base, though. If a batter gets walked or hit by a pitch, for example. And Dock? He was pitching all over the place.

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: You know, I'm trying to get the batters out and I'm throwing a crazy game. I'm hitting people, walking people, throwing balls in the dirt, they're going everywhere.]

[ARCHIVAL, announcer: Swung on a line drive on the right side, maz daz he’s got it!]

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: Cause I'm trying to figure out what the hell I'm gonna do with all these runners on base. I had the bases loaded two or three times.]

[ARCHIVAL, announcer: Holy toledo, that was close as fuzz on a tick’s ear, but the no-hitter is still alive.]

SIMONE: In the top of the seventh inning, the Pirates hit their second home run -- putting them up, two zero. And it stays that way, until the bottom of the ninth. Just three outs stand between Dock and victory. 

[ARCHIVAL, announcer: Dock Ellis on the no-hitter working to Chris Cannizzaro. The lead up batter in the bottom of the ninth here in San Diego. Once again, uh, Dock Ellis ready? Comes down with a fast ball, Cannizzaro swings, hits a high fly ball in the field. He's got it in and it’s one away.]

SIMONE: One down. The next batter grounds out to first base. That’s two down.

[ARCHIVAL, announcer: Now they’ll bring up Ed Spezio. Strike is called Ed Spezio. Dock Ellis on a no-hitter. Working away, here’s Spezio, no balls one strike, here’s the check, the pitch, strike two. Spezio standing in there and Dock Ellis checks his sign, comes down. Strike three!]

[ARCHIVAL, announcer: He's got it!!! Dock Ellis on a no-hitter. All over the place, He's got him on a strike out!]

[ARCHIVAL, announcer: And we have now seen our first no-hitter of this year and it comes to Dock Ellis. What a thrill for the young man.]

SIMONE: Dock is the only one -- that we know of -- to have thrown a no-hitter while on acid -- Though it would be a decade before he told anyone that little detail. 

SIMONE: So… What role did the LSD play that day? And what else was going on in Dock's world that led to his drug use? We’ll get to all that, after the break. 

SIMONE: Before the break….Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter while high on speed and tripping on acid. We heard how Dock experienced it, but what was actually going on inside his brain? What effect did the LSD have? 

Dr. Nutt: It was the only no-hitter in his life. It obviously improved his performance. Didn’t it? I think it’s almost unquestionable.

SIMONE: This is psychiatrist Dr. David Nutt. That’s Nutt with two T’s. He's been pioneering research in neuropsychopharmacology at the Imperial College of London. And for the past decade, he has studied how LSD and other psychedelics work. He’s familiar with Dock’s no-hitter.

Dr. Nutt: It wasn't that it made him a better pitcher. It made him a very different pitcher. In his case...

SIMONE: Dr. Nutt says it made him unpredictable to his opponents.

Dr. Nutt: They didn't know what was going on and they couldn't work out what the hell he was going to do because he, he didn't know what he was going to do.

SIMONE: Remember, Dock was confused. One minute he thinks he’s playing football, then another he can’t figure what size the baseball is.  But he was still able to pitch. Dr. Nutt says, all that checks out.  

Dr. Nutt: The interesting thing about LSD is it doesn't disrupt fundamental motor function like in pitching a baseball. What it would do is disrupt your ability to decide what kind of ball you were going to throw and, you know, what target you might have.

SIMONE: And then, there was the speed.

Dr. Nutt: If he hadn't been on the Benzedrine, he probably wouldn't have bothered to actually pitch at all.

SIMONE: Dock had found the perfect drug cocktail to be both focused and unpredictable. 

SIMONE: But perhaps the most important thing that the LSD did was something much deeper for Dock. Dr. Nutt says it likely helped erase his fear. 

Dr. Nutt: You can't think about failure, because you're not thinking about, you know, your brain is not able to, to make that projection that you might fail.

SIMONE: A fear of failure is something that Dock lived with constantly, and he says it’s one of the reasons he turned to drugs. 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: I was so used to medicating myself. That's the way I was dealing with the fear of failure.]

SIMONE: During Dock’s days in the MLB, he was under a lot of pressure to perform -- and he was scared. Scared of losing, scared of getting kicked out of the big leagues. 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: You get to the major leagues and you say, I got to stay here. What do I need? Oh, I need some of this shit right here. Cause this shit’ll get me going.]

SIMONE: The drugs distracted Dock from his insecurities…. they made him feel invincible.

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: It gives you that, that, uh, that feeling that you are at your top, top of your game. You like what they call in the zone now.]

SIMONE: Dock wanted to feel this way every game.  While the LSD was a one-time thing -- as far as we know -- Dock was high on other drugs -- mainly speed -- for nearly every game of his career. He couldn’t break the habit, even when he tried.

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: I tried to pitch a game in San Francisco without being high and it scared the hell out of me. I didn't even know how to wind up.]

SIMONE: Dock told one of his teammates that he didn’t know what to do.

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: He said, Oh no, you need your medicine. So I was, I ran all the way across the field to go get some Greenies and loaded my mouth up with Greenies and coffee… burn my lips.]

SIMONE: Greenies is slang for Dexedrine. It’s another form of speed. 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: I came back and the first thing, you know, boom, I was in the groove, but I was scared prior to… I didn’t know what to do. You know, uh, the fear of success and failure was, was what I was dealing with. That’s why I gravitated to the drugs.]

SIMONE:  I get that -- not the baseball specific parts, but the crushing pressure to do well, to not fuck up, to meet sky-high standards. I know how paralyzing that feels and I get doing whatever it takes to dull that fear and get unstuck. 

SIMONE: Take hosting this show, for example. This is a real Big Girl Job with expectations and pressure. There’s this constant refrain in the back of my head of “don’t fuck up… don’t fuck up… don’t fuck up”... So it’s tempting to reach for something that’ll get rid of that pit in my stomach. Just to get me going again.

SIMON: It’s hard not to wonder, if I could just hit delete on the anxiety… who knows what I could do? 

[ARCHIVAL, Donnell: I played enough sports to know that the difference between, um, letting fear bother you a little bit and letting fear not bother you at all, can be the difference between winning and losing, you know?]

SIMONE: This is Donnell Alexander. He’s the journalist who interviewed Dock for Weekend America all those years ago.    

SIMONE: Donnell says they had a wide-ranging conversation. Not just about this one game -- but they talked more deeply about drugs and baseball, and the difficulties that Dock faced as a Black man in the major leagues in the 60s and 70s.

[ARCHIVAL, Donnell: He came across very early on as a radical, you know, and it's interesting how he made it work within the confines of baseball. and how he didn't make it work as well.]

SIMONE: Dock wasn’t just dealing with the pressures of performing. He was playing in the big leagues -- which had been integrated for only about 20 years. It was the age of desegregation, civil rights, voting rights -- but also the age of Nixon and “law and order.”

SIMONE: Dock would get letters that said things like “You were brought up in a tar paper shack" and "You black son of a bitch" -- some real 1970s vintage racism. One time, a police officer wouldn't let Dock into a Cincinnati ballpark after he forgot his ID. Dock got angry, and the officer pulled a gun on him, decided to holster it, and maced him instead. 

SIMONE: Another time, while pitching a minor league game in North Carolina, a crowd of White fans taunted him with shouts of the N-word. Dock responded by striking out the last batter, then holding his middle finger in the air, and slowly turning in a circle.

SIMONE: And the racism extended beyond baseball fans -- to team management. They would question how he wore his hair -- commenting on his braids, asking him not to wear curlers on the field.  

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: They said I couldn't wear the curlers because it wasn't part of the uniform code. So I went and got a size 10 and a half hat and took the two curlers off of here, here, here, and here. And you couldn't see them.]

SIMONE: Dock was always looking for ways to fight back. And Donnell says, this activism set him apart. 

[ARCHIVAL, Donnell: Well he was known as the Muhammad Ali of baseball amongst black players.You know, we're so used to the generation of LeBron James and outspoken black athletes. In the seventies, there just weren't those athletes.]

SIMONE: Dock fought for players’ rights to free agency. He challenged the press and the league on matters of race -- saying they’d never start two Black men as pitchers in the All-Star Game. And then - that year, they did. And he was one of them.

[ARCHIVAL, Donnell: Dock Ellis talked about these things when no one dared do it. You know, there was a, there was a backlash that he suffered. Who knows how these things might have exacerbated his, uh, addiction issues.]

SIMONE: A deep-seated fear of failure, steeped in a culture of racism. That's a lot to deal with.  

SIMONE: People who were close to Dock later in life pretty much confirm Donnell's suspicions about the way all these things are connected to Dock's addiction issues. Dock’s friend Dr. Rubin, remembers him talking about it. 

Dr. Rubin: He felt that there was racism, it was rampant and it did affect who he was and how he was. Certainly, the kind of contracts he got and what have you. So he, a lot of the, uh, I think chemical dependency issues that he developed were related to that.

SIMONE: In the spring of 1980, when Dock quit baseball, he realized he needed help. So that fall, he enrolled in a 40-day substance abuse program in Arizona. Once he got clean, Dock says he had a hard time finding follow-up counselling. He says there just wasn’t anyone who had first-hand experience of what he went through.

Dr. Rubin: I think he wanted to become a counselor because he wanted to help people, and he, especially professional athletes. He, he just, uh, he saw the benefit of what it did for him and he wanted to pass it on.

SIMONE: Dock got trained as an alcohol and drug rehabilitation counsellor. He was looking for a place to work when his agent connected him with Dr. Rubin, who had just started a new practice that combined medicine, nutrition science, exercise physiology and behavioral health.  

SIMONE: In 1982, Dr. Rubin hired Dock at the clinic. And he was a really good counsellor. 

Dr. Rubin: The most impressive thing about Dock in this capacity was that you you couldn't lie to him. 

Dr. Rubin: Nobody could fool him, nobody, everybody would try, but they couldn't do it. And the reason why they couldn't do it is because he was one of them. So he knew. And, ah, it was impressive, I got to admit.

SIMONE: Basically Dock was really good at cutting through the bullshit when he spoke with people struggling with addiction. 

Dr. Rubin: He was very real and genuine.

Dr. Rubin: You couldn't find a better friend. And, uh, you couldn't find somebody better to have your back when you needed it. He was, uh, I loved him.

SIMONE: Dock spent the rest of his life helping others… He worked with professional athletes, troubled youth, and inmates.

SIMONE: And Dock says he stayed sober. He went to alcoholics anonymous, and other group meetings to manage his drug addiction. He would let himself go out to bars to socialize, but he would order a mocktail, what he dubbed the “Dock Cocktail.” A mixture of orange juice, pineapple juice, coconut cream, and grenadine.

SIMONE: Dr. Rubin thinks Dock’s patients also helped him stay on track. 

Dr. Rubin: he had to establish trust in order for them to be responsive to him, if he wouldn't remain sober while he's working with them, it would have, it would have been perceived as a betrayal. So I think it did help him stay on the sobriety track.

SIMONE: Dock talked about this on the MacNeil Lehrer News Hour. 

[ARCHIVAL, Dock: During your recovery, what is happening is you're like a child learning to walk again. And, uh, what happens is you need the people that are, that are recovering.]

SIMONE: 28 years after he got sober, in 2008, Dock died of complications stemming from chronic liver disease -- likely a result of his addiction to alcohol before he got clean. He was 63. 

SIMONE: It’s ironic because his alcohol addiction… it could possibly have been treated with the very drug he casually took before his no-hitter. Research is coming out that LSD, combined with therapy, may be able to treat alcohol addiction and depression. And one of the versions of the speed he was on, is now being used to help treat ADHD. 

SIMONE: We don’t know all the details of how Dock recovered… but what seems clear is that he had to step away from baseball to see the difference between what others wanted from him, and what he actually wanted for himself. 

SIMONE: And what he wanted was to help others with the same struggles he went through. He says that was the most meaningful part of his life, not the high profile major league baseball days, not the famous no-no, but the quiet work of giving back. 

SIMONE: And there’s bravery in that… in leaving the comfort of being validated by the world. Dock left his career, and in the process he found his calling and himself. 

SIMONE: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media. 

SIMONE: Next week, we’re traveling back to 2004 to revisit the scandal that changed Paris Hilton’s life and fame as we know it….

BOBBY FINGER: I definitely thought that it was Paris's idea, that she did this to herself to become famous.

SIMONE: This episode was produced by Sarah Craig and Kinsey Clarke. Our associate producers are Julie Carli and Jake Maia Arlow. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Andrea B. Scott, Zac Stuart Pontier and Abbie Ruzicka. Fact checking by Matthew Browne. Sound design and mixing by Bobby Lord. Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, and Bobby Lord. The theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With Music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka. 

SIMONE: If you want to know more about the Dock Ellis story check out NO NO: A DockUMENTARY or the awesome animated film Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No.

SIMONE: Special thanks to Donnell Alexander, Nellie Ilel, Bob Smizik, Jeffery Radice, James Blagden, Lydia Polgreen, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey, Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles, and Nabeel Chollampat.

SIMONE: Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. And follow me on Twitter @SimonePolanen

SIMONE: Thanks for hangin’. See you next week.